How I Almost Did Not Survive My First Cigar Factory Visit
Posted: Apr 18, 2007 1:13pm ET
I was excited. It was spring of 1992, and Marvin Shanken and I headed off the Dominican Republic to tour the nation’s cigar factories. I had been smoking cigars for nearly 15 years, but I had never actually set foot inside an honest to goodness factory. Cigar Aficionado magazine was still in its prototype phase, and I was going to report on all the major companies operating in the D.R. at the time for a feature in the first issue. The basic format and concept of the magazine had already taken shape, but now we had to fill the pages with content that our new readers would find interesting.
We arrived in La Romana, the home of the Tabacalera de Garcia factory and the Casa de Campo resort. At the time, Casa de Campo still served as the airport for the area, and American Airlines 727 pilots used to risk life and limb by landing on a runway that could not have measured more than a few feet beyond the minimum allowable length for such a plane. You literally zoomed past the windows of homes lining the golf course, and intersected two fairways while landing. (The golf cart paths were equipped with swinging gates and alarms that kept golfers out of the danger zone.)
We spent the day touring Tabacalera de Garcia with Richard DiMeola, then the top executive at Consolidated Cigar Corp.’s handrolled business, and José Seijas, who was (and to this day remains) the general manager of the factory, probably the largest handrolled cigar facility in the world. We saw rooms filled with hundreds of rollers and bunchers, storerooms piled with bales of tobacco and every stage of the cigar-rolling process taking place in dozens of rooms. We nearly gave Mr. DiMeola a heart attack when Marvin snapped a picture of a suction device that was used to test the draw on every cigar produced; at the time, it was a very secret piece of equipment.
But the highlight of the day came after lunch. We walked into a small conference room off of Mr. Seijas’ office, and lined up in front of each of the four chairs were a dozen cigars with numbered white bands. The two execs said they were trying out some new blends, and wanted to know if we would like to join in their tasting to judge the differences, and give them our impressions.
Absolutely, I thought. I jumped in with both feet. At one time, I seem to remember having all 12 cigars going at the same time. Puffing on one. Tasting the next one. Jumping to another. In truth, my memory is probably failing, and I didn’t have more than five or six going at any one time. But suffice it to say that in an hour, I sampled all 12 cigars, wrote notes, and talked about each one with DiMeola and Seijas.
We realized that it was time to leave, because we had a small twin-engine propeller plane waiting to fly us to Santiago, where we were going to continue our cigar tour. As I walked out into the sunlight, I suddenly began to sweat profusely. I was in the tropics, so I first thought that it was the heat. But I quickly realized that it wasn’t a normal perspiration but a tingly, beady kind of sweat that for me usually accompanies … nausea. I vaguely remember someone saying to me, “Are you OK?” I nodded yes, but I figured I was turning some nasty looking shade of green.
Nonetheless, we got on the plane and took off into the mid-afternoon tropical air, flitting between thunderstorms and thermals—In other words, the flight was bumpy as hell. I pulled the airsick bag out of the back pocket and held on to it for dear life, wanting it very close in case I needed it. Marvin turned around and looked at me, and said, “Are you OK?” I nodded quietly again, determined not to toss my cookies. In fact, I hadn’t worked for him that long, and I didn’t want him to have to watch one of his employees retch his way into oblivion in what seemed like a very, very tiny plane that was bouncing all over the place.
Believe it or not, I managed to get to Santiago without losing it. I stumbled off the plane, and we made our way to the hotel. I was still pretty much forced to hang my head out the window of the SUV, praying that we would get to the hotel as fast as possible. Once we checked in, I lay down on the bed and waited a couple of hours for the feeling to pass.
I found out later that I had been through a not-uncommon experience for cigar tasters: nicotine overdose. Sweats. Nausea. Chills. All are symptoms of getting too much nicotine into your system…and I wasn’t inhaling that day, either. I also learned later that there is a pretty simple cure: swallow a sugar cube whole and it will alleviate the worst of the symptoms.
But that day in the Dominican Republic, I didn’t have all the knowledge that I have today. I thought I was goner.
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